U.S. Men's Eight in Practice
Mike Teti has seen this before.
With only one medal over the past two Olympics, and the men's eight going through two consecutive Final Olympic Qualification Regattas – the so-called "regatta of death" – to get there, the performance of the U.S. men's teams caused examination and questions about the overall state of men's rowing in the U.S. at all levels.
Fingers have been pointed in the direction of internationals being recruited into the top universities; perceptions the U.S. system does not produce or develop a sufficient number of serious, world class oarsmen; that there is a lack of opportunity for young men in U.S. universities; and that funding issues and an overabundance of governance by the national governing system has stymied efforts to select and develop the best available rosters.
All these various questions, while having been argued in some form for years, have emerged with heightened urgency in the months since the 2016 Olympic Games.
Teti was not at all surprised with the questions began in earnest: "Every time something like this happens, everyone wants to look for a reason."
A USRowing Task Force was formed in the fall to examine the current selection and training procedure, the results of which are to be made public early this month.
Changes since the formation of the study group have included naming the resignation of four USRowing board members and Chief Executive Officer Glenn Merry, a new High Performance Committee, and significant changes to the men's coaching ranks, including the search for a new head men's coach.
Nonetheless, during months of multiple interviews by row2k with top U.S. college, club, and national team coaches, the answers that have emerged are mostly encouraging and provide a picture of a future of possible positive change.
Many of these opinions, and suggestions for change, have appeared in the three previous installments of the row2k series, "Men's Rowing in the U.S. The Intersection of U.S. Men's Collegiate and Elite Rowing." (See an editor introduction to the series here.)
Part one discussed the internationals question and its impact (or lack thereof) on the collegiate and elite systems.
Part two addressed the questions surrounding identification and development of possible U.S. elite oarsmen.
Part three examines the available opportunities that currently exist for male junior and high school athletes to row in college, with or without financial assistance. While the opportunities do not approach those available to women in terms of available scholarships as a direct result of Title IX gender equality pressure, the opportunities in both club and varsity programs are plentiful.
This final piece will attempt to lend voice to multiple opinions of where significant roadblocks for future U.S. successes at the elite level may remain, and what possible solutions exist according to those who have been in the game long enough to know.
Among those voices, Teti, the current head men's coach at the University of California and the most successful American men's U.S. national team coach in history, truly believes the tide will turn.
Mike Teti with Harry Parker at the 2012 San Diego Crew Classic
"I'm optimistic," Teti said. "I'm going to say we had a bad patch. I think people recognize a lot of things went wrong and why they went wrong and I think it's going to be corrected. It's just that you have to go through this whole painstaking process."
Task Force Report
The final report is not public, but according to both USRowing and some of those involved, it is complete. The results have come at a cost and considerable disruption. In January four members of the USRowing Board of Directors resigned, and Merry announced he was stepping down effective April 15th.
The board has since been reconstructed and a new CEO is being sought.
(Some of the points expected to be addressed in the report and the USRowing resignations have been previously reported by row2k.)
Some of the issues addressed include a need to improve retention of experienced athletes; a shallow pool of athletes identified as possible candidates for the senior team; identification and development of potential new athletes; a need for more active scouting in the college ranks; the creation of an environment where athletes are encouraged to find suitable employment and quality of life situations; and debate about training programs necessary for peak performance throughout the Olympic cycle.
Discussion also included changing the camp selection process and team-naming timelines to allow collegiate athletes more flexibility in deciding when to join the training center and selection camps when considering participation in post-season competitions like the Henley Royal Regatta, as well as a move away from weighted National Selection Regatta pairs results that would better suit the inclusion of newer, collegiate athletes with underdeveloped small boat skills.
Other areas under study were a shift away from boat priority for the men from the four to the eight.
Governance and Oversight
Many believe that the system for the last two cycles, in particular fixed team naming dates, is limiting in that it restricts the men's coaches' ability to fully access all possible collegiate prospects at both the under23 and senior levels, and that having the final selection camp selections reviewed and approved hinders a coach's ability to make the choices they want and continues to slow the process.
"To me a lot of the problem is governance," said Teti. "The naming dates, and all that stuff, it all plays into it."
During his early years as the head men's coach, Teti said he did not have to name a team until all possible athletes were available for selection. That, he said, allowed collegiate athletes to finish their competitive season and not to be forced to choose between selection and the success of their college teams.
"In those first couple of years, I didn't have to name the team until a couple of days before we left," he said. "So I had kids that rowed for their college all year, then they went to Henley and I would get them after Henley. You can't do that now.
"All that changed with naming dates. The year I had the U23 boat and we won and set the world record in 2011, there were still a couple of guys that were at Henley but we couldn't take them because they didn't go through the camp. All this governance, I think that's the biggest problem," he said.
"In my opinion here's what you do: you hire the head coaches and then you give them complete autonomy. Do you think (Patriots head coach) Bill Belicheck, when he decides to cut someone or add someone to the roster, has to run it by a committee? Or Charlie Butt at Harvard has to run his boat past a High Performance Committee?
"I believe everyone is trying to make the team better, but at some point, someone has to be in charge," Teti said. "At Cal, they hired me and said OK, this is your budget, you have to stay within your budget. These are your duties and you've got to go produce something. And if you don't, we're going to fire you."
Potential Exists – Buy-In Must Follow
The prevailing opinion is there are plenty of athletes in the United States, and more are being developed. Steve Hargis, USRowing's Junior National Team Development Coach and the junior men's head coach, has been involved in junior national team coaching and development since 1999.
He has been instrumental in building identification and age-specific development camps that he believes are the building blocks of the future, for both men and women.
Hargis said he is encouraged by the results of the junior national men's teams and the progress and impact they have had on the system already. Of the 2016 men's Rio team, eight were former junior national team athletes.
Over the years under Hargis, the junior men's system has expanded and brought a steady stream of competitive athletes into the system. The results are showing up in competition. At the 2016 world junior championships, the U.S. won bronze medals in the coxed four and quad, and silver in the eight.
Junior Men's Eight on the Medals Dock
Hargis does recognize the difficulty the U.S. faces in finding young male athletes for two reasons - the lack of collegiate funding for men compared to women, and the unpredictability of the growth potential of young men.
"We don't know about these kids," Hargis said. He does note there are obvious predictors; "like, my grandfather was 6'6" or 6'5", my father was 6'5" and I turned out to be 6'5". What a surprise."
Because young men have different rates of growth, making decision on who has potential among boys still in school is not an exact science. "On the guy's side, it's always a crap shoot," he said.
For the junior national team, Hargis said the focus over the years has changed from finding athletes they think will develop and stay in the sport to finding guys that can perform now, and then tracking their development and keeping them excited and in the sport toward a senior team trajectory - if it is in the cards.
"I think that the numbers of potential senior teamers will continue to grow," he said. "But another issue is it is sometimes difficult to find those guys who are at the scholastic level to roll them into the national level because of the difference in funding from the women's side of things compared to the men when it comes to collegiate rowing."
Hargis also notes the effect of the much larger number of scholarships available in women's rowing compared to men's rowing.
"There are as many rowing opportunities for young men, but the aspirations to become a national teamer on the girl's side can be driven by educational goals and financial interests."
For those that do rise, the system needs improving, with continuity and results critical to that, he said.
Hargis said he does not see that continuity right now when he compares the men's and women's team's results, the size of the training center rosters, and the number of women that stay in the system.
"When I spend any time around some of the senior team guys and senior team men's coaches, it strikes me just that it does not seem as cohesive as on the girl's side. I don't know where that comes from or what the cause is. But it just seems that way. I don't know if it's the process that they are going through or if that's just the way it's going to be.
"But there is a difference in the two programs. I don't know if it's because (head women's coach Tom Terhaar) has been there so long and has been so successful that they all buy into what Tom says. I don't see the same buy-in to the men's system. And that could be one or two things. Either the system isn't robust enough to capture the imagination of these guys to that level. Or the athletes that are doing it are just not buying into the system. I don't know if it's the chicken or the egg."
Steve Gladstone has been coaching one of the top collegiate athletes in the country for the past three seasons. Nate Goodman came to Yale after rowing scholastically at Montclair High School in Montclair, N.J. He rowed on two junior national teams in the men's pair.
His junior national team pair partner, Justin Murphy, is rowing at Cal under Teti. Like Teti, Gladstone has been part of the U.S. rowing community since he began coaching in 1966 at Princeton. He has been part of the collegiate system in five of the top U.S. programs, and served as a national team coach between 1969 and 1973.
And like Teti, he sees the potential in the U.S. men across the country.
Gladstone said that there are plenty of opportunities in the U.S. collegiate system and that the recruiting of internationals is not a deterrent to American development. He said he also believes that the U.S. is better when it recognizes in which events it is strong and develops the system from there, instead of prioritizing small boats over the larger sweep boats.
"Putting it into context, in the U.S., when you look at the history, the eight has always been our priority boat," he said. "We've been very fortunate, in the old days to win some of the races, by incredibly close margins, but we won.
"We've rarely been distinguished in the small boats," he said. "The eight has been our event. Everybody has thoughts and opinions, and I don't claim mine are any more expert, but look at Rio; I would guess that if you put the best guys who were in our straight four into the eight, the eight would have won a medal.
"But the issue is not related to international oarsmen being in our system. If people are trying to make that case that we will never be able to compete internationally, successfully, because the D1 programs in the United States are predominately populated by foreigners, I don't agree.
"There is nothing automatic about a foreigner being exceptional. I've coached a lot of them and some are superb, some are good and some are average. "When I look back over the years, the Americans that I have coached, Jesus, they've been good," he said. "Look at Nate Goodman, who is stroking (the Yale varsity eight) boat. If I were a national team coach, I would be licking my chops. We'll see what happens when he graduates."